A recent article on Gamasutra gathered together Ken Levine, Thomas Grip, Chet Faliszek and Erik Wolpaw, the writers of Bioshock, Amnesia: The Dark Descent and Portal 2, for a discourse on the state and quality of storytelling in games. A number of different points were brought up in conjunction with this; some of which I agree with and others I simply cannot. These conflicting impressions have prompted me to dwell on the statements, and address them in this response.
The first assertion made by Grip is that not all games need to be fun, and there should be a focus on those that tackle serious subject matter in ways that we are not seeing yet. He cites films such as Schindler’s List as an example of the type of ideas that should permeate the industry in order to move it forward. This type of storytelling is something that I have been calling for since I was reintroduced to gaming five years ago. I could see then the way that the hobby had grown up from the simple, ‘fun’ experiences of my youth. The narratives were suddenly so much more involving and sometimes emotional, but they were lacking depth. As a fan of classic literature, I feel as though I am being insulted by games developers pandering to the action-craving masses, and allowing involving topics to be stifled.
Point me in the direction of a game that can emulate a complex romance like that of ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. How about something that delves into the mind of an immoral, though highly intelligent beast of a man, a la ‘Silence of the Lambs’ or ‘Lolita’. Can you say that any game (with the possible exception of Bioshock) has impacted you in a similar way to ‘1984’ or ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with their disturbing looks at plausible societies that are controlled in the most minute of detail and where a single negative aspect of modernity has overrun them? I know that I cannot. Some try this, but almost all fall short of their lofty goals due to a fear to break out of the same tired trends and tropes that dominate the industry.
Grip points his finger at ‘big companies’ for the source of this fear. Risks are frowned upon as a result of the immense budgets that are required to make a AAA game nowadays. That much is abundantly obvious when one hears tales of projects like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto reaching into the hundreds of millions of dollars, while Gran Turismo 5 was reportedly in the realm of $80 million. Double Fine Productions took to the Kickstarter program for assistance with their funding and raised over three million in two months. While it can’t exactly be considered an ‘indie’ project, it is still relatively small in the grand scheme of things, and that amount of money is not inconsequential. These larger games are oftimes massive undertakings, employing dozens, if not hundreds of people over the course of their development and this, Grip continues, is another reason for the adherence to established formulae.
Any project that involves a multitude of people to see completion is going to wind up somewhat tainted. People are egotists and everyone in the world wants their say. Look at the furore over the ending of Mass Effect 3. Not only has a petition sprung up for Bioware to change it, but enraged fans have even begun pooling their funds for the same purpose. Exactly what they hope to achieve by this latter fact is beyond me, but let’s not dwell on that. It only affirms the widespread mentality of entitlement that has sprung up with my generation; the belief that we can change the world, empowered by media glorifying stupid individuals and the easy access of the endless forums of the internet. But I digress. This desire to be a part of the creative process leads to the muddying of the original vision. Without careful consideration, it overwhelms the goal of the auteur who brought forth the original idea, destroying it in the process and forming it into little more than a could-have-been clone.
All of the writers in the interview, at some point, blame this largely upon not having a dedicated person in the studio to work with the team in crafting the story and plot details to fuse with the other aspects of the project to bring it to the fore. In other words, employing a person to piece together the patchwork quilt of the programmers will never be able to create a unified vision, no matter what their previous writing experience is. Story is a great deal more than just the events that unfold.
Novelists have known this for hundreds of years, offering exposition and background on the worlds and characters that they create, bringing them to vivid life by allowing the imagination of the readers to generate a model of their vision. A game can tear away that veil of imagination if executed properly. Clues and cues can be dotted about the environment to offer that fictional history, and short cutscenes, or audio logs can be utilised to flesh out certain aspects of it. Bioshock did this magnificently, offering a piecemeal history of Rapture with the voices of dead characters echoing hauntingly as one picked up their diaries. God of War let players experience the near-defeat of Kratos that saw him calling out to Ares for assistance, and thus becoming his slave. It is a simulacrum of the idea of analepses that are often found in novels and television and often works surprisingly well.
Keeping these short means that the player receives the information that they need to familiarise themselves with the world without becoming detached from it, and this is being realised ever more frequently. They are being implanted into the very core of the game, and this does make them more powerful by keeping the fourth wall intact and the player involved, without necessarily wrenching control away from them. This is certainly a good thing, but this is also where my agreements with the writers involved in this interview come to an end.
Back in 2010, before the Velocity Gamer Network had been established, David Cage mentioned that cutscenes were like pornography, preparing players for the action that was to follow, and while the writers here do not draw the same parallel, they emphasise the same core dissonance. Levine compared games to Broadway musicals and the way that the scenes transitions from regular acting to singing, which can take those unused to the format out of the experience as they struggle to adjust to that fundamental change in display methods. He postulates that the jump “removes much of the empathy that you might have in a movie” and that, as a result, games cannot achieve the same emotional connection as a film, regardless of the quality of the cinematography and acting.
Now, I’m not denying that tearing control away from the player can result in their becoming disengaged with the in-game world, but to call this a fundamental flaw in the presentation of games is somewhat nonsensical. Without it, you can only end up with the kind of wooden acting that is seen in the likes of Dead Space and The Elder Scrolls, where NPCs deliver their speeches from behind glass, allowing the illusion of interactivity when the reality is that you are simply waiting for a scripted sequence to end. No matter how creative one is in generating the kind of scenario that expository dialogue can be expressed, it must always result in the player being taken out of the experience somewhat.
Eradicating the idea of cutscenes entirely is noxious, and can only reduce the power of a narrative by disallowing character interaction. Even were this to be displayed in the likes of Grand Theft Auto while driving, you would still be missing something necessary to understand the significance of the friendship. Furthermore, cutscenes can also create a certain majesty that can rarely be replicated in gameplay, and this results in them sometimes being regarded as a reward. Taking a break allows players to reflect on what they’ve done and wonder what is yet to come based on what they see. It’s necessary to remove player agency from time to time, if only to keep them grounded as it is often far too easy to lose oneself in a game.
Nevertheless, it’s important that the cutscenes do not become bloated, and overly tedious to sit through, a common complaint of those found in Metal Gear Solid 4. They should be kept concise, getting across the dialogue and extraneous knowledge that needs to be imparted with as little unnecessary extravagance as possible. It’s a fine line to walk, but games are still a fledgling medium trying to find their footing and unique identity. The industry is experimenting and maturing in many different ways and specific narrative and storytelling is just one of these.
Another article that I happened across uses the recently released Journey as a springboard to clamber upon a soapbox and proclaim that everyone needs to accept that games can be subject to serious, intellectual debate in the same way that novels and films are. Again, this is a sentiment that I firmly agree with, but it ties in with one of the very first points addressed in this article in regards to the banal, or non-existent, subject matter of 99% of games on the market. It seems that games that focus on minimalism are subject to microscopic investigation far more frequently than more in-your-face offerings that really do try to spruik their depth and intelligence. Maybe it is because scholars want to discover a hidden meaning, or maybe it is simply due to the ambiguity that they bring.
Whatever the reason, it can hardly be denied that Journey, Flower, Limbo, ICO and Dear Esther are far more interesting case studies in deeper meaning than Halo, Uncharted, Final Fantasy and even Heavy Rain. Perhaps it is because they straddle the idea of games being art better than the other, more adrenaline driven, titles. They offer something mysterious that naturally asserts themselves as worthy of attention and discussion. There is something truly incredible to found within these almost singular experiences that grants reason enough for them to be thrown into the spotlight, and not only in the gaming media.
They deserve to be viewed in the light provided by an intellectual trying to decipher them and to thus raise awareness of the deservedness of the massive library of games to the same scrutiny. However, this is has the potential to create the effect of a double-edged sword. As the individuality that sets such games apart becomes identifiable, it leads to the distinct probability of emulation as a result of the success. Considering most of the industry is already built upon the concept of plagiarising lucrative properties, this would be a tragedy. It could have little effect outside of reducing the significance and novelty of these outstanding seminal efforts. A bleak outlook, to be sure, and one that there is no guarantee of, so take heart.
Even if it is likely, I consider it to be worthwhile. It is the only way for the recalcitrant masses to accept gaming as a mature medium on the same level of entertainment as film. It is the study and proliferation of more intelligent, or at least, subtle games that will sway the likes of Roger Ebert; those well-studied individuals whose words can influence the people into acceptance or denial. But this acceptance is only half of the struggle. The industry, and its consumers are immature. You need only take to one of many, many gaming sites and read the bilious, puerile comments to see this. There is no doubt that this will be left behind as those people grow up, but there will be more to replace them. It’s a disappointing cycle. However, the acceptance of gaming among scholarly circles will draw more people of that type to the hobby, and eventually drown out this infantile behaviour.